5 Dangerous Creative Blocks (and How to Beat Them)

by Corey Pemberton 8 Minutes

AuthorityCreative work is immensely satisfying and rewarding, but it can also be scary. Uncertainty, fear, and self-doubt can surface when you’re facing a blank page or computer monitor. Sometimes this even makes us feel blocked – too paralyzed to create.

You aren’t weird if you feel those things. They’re just a natural part of the creative process.

But wallowing in these creative blocks for too long can harm your career. As creative professionals (and you better believe it, you fall into that group if you plan to thrive in today’s tough economy), we’re challenged to deliver “creativity on demand.”

While customers and clients might relate to your creativity challenges, they still have their expectations. If you fail to meet them, the money stops coming in.

Fortunately, you can tweak the way you approach your work to prevent creative blocks from showing up and minimize them when they do.

Do Any of These Creativity Killers Sound Familiar?

You can’t avoid creativity slumps completely. But you can’t afford to have them go on too long without it negatively affecting your business.

Look around you. See that rock on one side, and the hard place on the other? That’s what this predicament can feel like.

Here are five of the most common culprits – and how to beat them:

1. Waiting Until We Feel Inspired

I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp. – W. Somerset Maugham

creative blocks

Photo credit: Skitterphoto

Inspiration feels amazing. It gets us out of bed in the morning, keeps us up late, and turns our working hours into a blur.

Unfortunately, inspiration is also fickle. It comes and goes whenever it pleases. Sometimes it abandons us right when we need it most: when we’re staring down a series of challenging creative projects.

People who create as a hobby can afford to wait around for inspiration to show up. But the rest of us – those who turn our creativity into rent money, mortgages, and retirement funds – can’t afford that luxury.

If we wait around for inspiration too long, we miss deadlines. Work doesn’t get done. Eventually, if it keeps happening, we have to look for another line of work.

How to Beat It

Something that works well for many creatives is simply setting a schedule. We can’t conjure inspiration to show up at specific days and times, but we can always work. Just forcing yourself to be at your desk at the same time every day familiarizes you with the uncertainty that comes from facing a clean slate – and working through it. With time, you might even find inspiration showing up more often when it’s supposed to.

If all else fails, grab a timer and just force yourself to work for five or ten minutes. Lack of inspiration is often just a disguise for resistance to start. But if you make it through those first few minutes, you’ll be surprised at just how many times inspiration shows up shortly after. You’ll find yourself wanting to keep working even with the timer goes off.

2. Worrying Too Much About Criticism

To avoid criticism say nothing, do nothing, be nothing. – Aristotle

harsh criticism

Photo credit: PublicDomainPictures

We don’t just want people to notice what we create: we want them to like it too. Harsh feedback and criticism can really knock the wind out of our sails and discourage us from creating more.

Sometimes, a fear of potential negative criticism is enough to stop us before we ever start. We’re so worried about the mean things people might say that we justify not creating what we should.

The sting of negative criticism will never go away completely, but there are things we can do to make it easier on ourselves to act in spite of it.

How to Beat It

First of all, stop seeing negative feedback as a trauma you were unfortunate enough to endure. Start seeing it as a rite of passage. Remember this: anyone who has ever accomplished great things creatively has faced criticism, negative reviews, and plenty of harsh words.

Negative feedback is as natural a part of the creative process as blocks are. The only way to avoid it completely is not to create at all – not really an option!

A lot of problems arise not from the criticism itself, but how we perceive it. Because we’ve worked on something so long and intensely – we’ve created it from nothing – it feels like it’s a part of us. Undesirable feedback can feel a lot like a personal attack.

Remind yourself that the feedback isn’t about you; it’s about your work. It might be about something else entirely – unclear communication, expectations, etc. It also might offer some key insights how to improve.

If you’re stressed about negative feedback, the best thing you can do for yourself is to just keep pushing. Set deadlines and consistently knock them down. Always have a new project in the pipeline. Those things will help thicken your skin. Plus, you can’t worry too much about a rude thing someone said when you’re focused on creating something new.

Finally, and probably the most challenging thing of all, is to take the stoic view. Negative feedback is ultimately outside your control. Even if you slave to make everyone happy, some people simply won’t like your work. Focus on what you can control instead: the time, energy, and passion you devote to your creative work.

3. Succumbing to Perfectionism

I think perfectionism is just fear in fancy shoes and a mink coat, pretending to be elegant when it’s just terrified. – Elizabeth Gilbert

avoid perfectionism

Photo credit: geralt

Sometimes it’s not other people we need to worry about: it’s ourselves. A lot of creatives are perfectionists. They’re their own harshest critics – often to the point where they can’t ever finish a project.

This is devastating for a lot of people whose income hinges on their ability to produce creative work. They end up missing deadlines, or they don’t ever finish enough products to give themselves a chance at success.

How to Beat It

This one hits home for me, as it’s something I continue to struggle with today. One thing that’s helped me get a lot better about my perfectionism, though, is simply doing creative work for clients.

There’s nothing to motivate you like external deadlines. They can be stressful, especially during those first few months when you transition from creativity as a hobby to creativity as work. But it’s amazing how simply meeting a deadline, satisfying your customer, and repeating it over again rids you of feelings of perfectionism. You just don’t have the time!

A big part of why this works is simply the extra layer of accountability. If it were up to me, I’d agonize over my work way longer than I should and practically never get anything out. I used to despise deadlines, but I’ve learned to love them as propellers for creative work.

You can try self-imposed deadlines too. If you’re more disciplined then I am, you’ll do what it takes to hit them all on your own. But I’ve found sharing my deadlines with someone I trust (my wife, usually) makes it much more likely I’ll follow through.

Finally, don’t hate yourself for your perfectionist tendencies. In many cases, that extra attention to detail will separate you from competitors. Just be aware of when you’re using it as a tool to create quality work… and when it’s becoming a burden.

4. Letting the Idea Well Run Dry

The word block suggests that you are constipated or stuck, when the truth is that you’re empty. – Anne Lamott

empty well

Photo credit: yoosafabdulla

A lot of times, we like to agonize over how “blocked” we are creatively. But our diagnosis is wrong. What we really are is creatively empty.

You probably know the feeling. What was once exciting has devolved into rote routine. Your work doesn’t excite you like it used to. Somewhere along the way that creative spark went out.

Fortunately, you can do something about this:

How to Beat It

Want to reignite your creative spark? One of the best things you can do is to constantly absorb new information, both within and outside your field. Read widely. Listen to podcasts and watch cool documentaries. Get out, experience life, and observe closely.

This isn’t always a short-term solution. But when you do this day in and day out, you gather the “raw material” you need for a more creative life. You never know when an old idea will resurface, or different ideas churn together in your mind in exciting new ways.

Don’t expect yourself to remember everything either! Gather up cool quotes, ideas, and your notes somewhere where you can go over them all in one place. It doesn’t matter if you use a tool like Evernote or go old school with a journal – as long as you come up with a system that works for you. Sifting through old gems you’ve collected can often relight that spark you need.

It’s also smart to practice coming up with new ideas every day. People like James Altucher believe idea generation is like flexing a muscle. If you find yourself at a roadblock, you’re more likely to get past it if you’ve been toning those idea muscles every day.

When all else fails, step away from your work and try something totally different. Sometimes just getting away from the problem (physically and mentally) for a while is all it takes to clear things up or shift your perspective.

5. Buying into Magic Bullet Thinking

People are always looking for the single magic bullet that will totally change everything. There is no single magic bullet. – Temple Grandin

magic bullet

Photo credit: BRAIN_PAIN

A lot of us get caught up in the idea of creating the “next big thing.” We’re working tirelessly, desperate in our attempts to release our own iPhone or Harry Potter series.

After we spend countless hours struggling through the creative process, we launch every thing we make with huge expectations. We gave this everything we had, after all! We wait impatiently for accolades and cash to start pouring in… only to end up devastated when things don’t turn out like we hoped.

It’s only natural to get enamored with the idea of creating a true game-changer. Those are the sexiest success stories around. We imagine a sudden transformation – a rags-to-riches tale of huge success. But approaching our creative work this way actually does us more harm than good, ultimately stifling our chances of success.

How to Beat It

Ditching the idea of creating the “next big thing” is one of the best things you can do for your creative sanity. The reality: creativity is a process. The work you produce today is just a snapshot of your skills at a certain moment. It’s a snapshot – not a culmination or magic bullet.

No one – creative and business geniuses included – can predict with certainty which idea will turn out to be the next big thing. All you can do is put in the work, create to the best of your ability, and be mindful to always push yourself. Pressuring yourself to come up with something truly earth-shattering isn’t just unnecessary; it can even paralyze you from finishing anything at all.

Something amazing happens when you let go of the idea of creating a magic bullet product. You take more risks. You become more prolific. You’re more worried about what to create next than obsessing over a lukewarm reaction to the thing that was supposed to change the world. When you give yourself this freedom, you’re actually more likely to hit a home run because you are swinging more too.

A Natural Part of the Creative Process

Ebbs and flows are a natural part of the creative process. When your income’s on the line, sometimes it’s hard to keep that in perspective.

Anyone who has become massively successful has survived creative slumps. They’ve broken through blocks and pushed their skills further. Some of your role models might be going through one right now.

All we can do is try to prevent as many as we can, and when they do show up, work through them quickly. The tips above will help you do both. Just tweaking the way you work will help you deliver the creative solutions your customers crave – while still keeping yourself sane.

Have you ever faced a creative block? What did you do to work through it? Leave a comment below and let me know. I’d love to hear from you!

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by Corey Pemberton
Corey Pemberton is a freelance copywriter and blogger who helps small businesses and software startups get more traffic and conversions online. You can find him on his website or follow him on Twitter.